‘Yesterday morning at 2:41 a.m. at Headquarters, General Jodl, the representative of the German High Command, and Grand Admiral Doenitz, the designated head of the German State, signed the act of unconditional surrender of all German Land, sea, and air forces in Europe to the Allied Expeditionary Force, and simultaneously to the Soviet High Command.’
As soon as Winston Churchill spoke those words immortal words, the reality of what was becoming apparent became true. After nearly six years of fighting, Germany had surrendered. Though it would still be four months until the Japanese surrendered, VE Day was finally here. The occupation of countries like France would be a distant memory, as would the bloody brutality of battles such as the Normandy Landings.
Seventy-two years later, and we owe the greatest debt of thanks to the brave men (and on some occasions, women) who defended our liberty.
Liberty. Freedom. Civil rights.
Three things that the people of Nazi Germany did not have. Though the Nazis covered up their tyranny through stylish propaganda and the guise of economic stability after a period of turbulence, we cannot pretend that Hitler and his minions were anything but fascist and deeply authoritarian in their actions and ideology. Any criticism was swiftly crushed, and that was sadly not the worst of it. Anyone who did not conform would not be allowed into society. Even those who were seen as the perfect Aryans did not enjoy political freedom, a right to one’s own body (abortion was either forced or completely prohibited) or any of the things we enjoy today. Sadly, there was worse. Whether Jewish, Gypsy, homosexual, of another race, the list of ‘sins’ on the Nazi list was endless. Though the horrors of the camps were not truly known until after the war- even amongst Germans- it would be one where the blood of the victims stained history. The Holocaust victims were more than just statistics; they were the victim of cold blooded mental, physical and emotional torment.
In that way, soldiers weren’t the only heroes of VE Day. Everyone who fought against the Nazis by protecting Jews and other victims, whether by passive resistance or open defiance, was a contributor to VE Day. Israel has thousands people registered as ‘Righteous Among the Nations,’ those who risked their lives to prevent others from losing theirs. We cannot forget them.
Of course, however, we mainly associate the military with VE Day, and it is primarily a day for remembering those who defended their nations. Throughout the British Commonwealth- everywhere from the middle of London to those in Calcutta, millions of men and boys volunteered to stand against evil. Some lied about their ages; others hid medical conditions in desperation to serve. When they could not stand on the front line, they were the doctors, cooks and ambulance drivers who kept the whole operation running. Boys as young as sixteen were willing to be shot out of the sky for God, King and Country, willing to be laid to rest without so much as having kissed a girl. They may not have known about the evils of the Holocaust, but they knew that they were fighting against something on the wrong side. Across the world, families received telegrams, informing them that their son had been killed in action. Through the anguish and the grief, only part of their heart would be filled by the knowledge that they were heroes.
Let us not forget the women either. Without the Rosie Riveters who assembled the bullets, the regular women who raised war bonds or the nurses who tended the wounds of the inured, many more lives- civilian or otherwise- would have been lost.
Extraordinary events create extraordinary people.
Out of VE Day came an extraordinary new world. This post-war age is not perfect- look at leaders like Franco and Ceaușescu, or massacres such as that of Bosnian Muslims- but it would have not of come about without the sacrifice and bravery of millions of quite ordinary people. In every European country, bar the Vatican (which doesn’t have voting as we know it); women have equal access to the ballot as men. The discrimination of certain groups may occur, but it is rare and is thankfully not tolerated by the masses. Personal autonomy, political freedom and just basic human rights are now afforded to the vast majority of citizens.
A new world, more beautiful than the last, was born.
Churchill is often quoted because of the depth and memory attached to his speeches. In one such memorable speech, the British Bulldog said: ‘Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.’
And it was. It truly was.